Alice in… / Projekt

Fans of the 1990s-era Heavenly Voices compilations will fondly remember Stoa’s gorgeous, pleasantly melancholy neoclassical music — especially its lovely, ethereal female vocals. Although the band was founded by composer and keyboard player Olaf Parusel in 1991, Zal is only its third album, its second with singer Antje Buchheiser (who has since been replaced by a new singer, Mandy Bernhardt). Cellist Christiane Fischer and oboist Barbara Uhle round out the lineup for this album.

From the first note of Zal, Stoa transports the listener to another world with their outstanding musicianship and truly innovative, moving compositions. Each of the musicians has extensive classical training, and this really shows through in the quality of their playing. In the world of Zal, the colors are sharper (including the abundant blacks and grays), the emotions are deeper and the memories more vivid. As you might expect of a European darkwave act, the dominant emotion is melancholy–but a beautiful, inspiring melancholy, like that of the Romantics.

Three of the eleven tracks on Zal are instrumentals, including the album-opening “I Held the Moon,” one of my favorite pieces on the album. It sets the perfect tone with its lovely mellow, melancholy piano solo echoing in the vast space of a hollow heart deserted by the lover that once made it come alive. With the exception of a fine cover of Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s “I Wish You Could Smile,” all songs use poems for lyrics, including Joyce’s “Alone” and Verlaine’s “Chanson d’Automne.” Of the songs, “Maare” (lyrics by Keiji Sayama) is the most moving. It begins with slowly shifting, brooding synths, which soon merge with faster, more rhythmic sounds, like waves drifting across the ocean, the dancing spray on their crests set afire by the last light of the drowning sun. Antje’s vocals are enchanting here, backed with exquisitely sensitive cello accompaniment, combining to evoke a vision so alluring you yearn to embrace it, yet so fragile you dare not even breathe upon it. “Ariel’s Song” (lyrics by Shakespeare) is another incredibly intricate, impressive and evocative musical composition. And, “Soft Snow” does an amazing job setting Blake’s words dancing, with its lovely, gentle piano solo like caresses of snow on your upturned face, soon merging with slow and tearful voice and cello mourning the death of the perfect flakes as the skirling sheets of snow billow out into nothingness.

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